3 min

Culture & crotches

Jean-Marie Belanger explores sexuality's artistic purpose

Credit: Shawn Scallen

For Ottawa painter and sculptor Jean-Marie Belanger, being gay is not only a matter of sexuality, it’s the basis of his art.

After coming out 10 years ago, Belanger – who received his degree in the visual arts from the University of Ottawa in 1998 – decided to use his homosexuality not just to explore his inner self, but as a starting point for his work.

“What I am expressing [through my art] is my true self. And the first thing that I connect to in myself is my own sexuality,” Belanger explains. “And that’s how my sexuality came into play in my art: I decided to go with my own homosexuality as a purpose to start my work, as a way to accept and understand myself better.”

For the past four years, Belanger has explored the shape and texture of the pear by associating it with male attributes in his paintings.

“The pear has a very sensual aspect to it,” he says, adding that the fruit’s sensual nature is generally associated with the female figure. “In my work, however, I take away the traditional symbolism and find a new symbolism, in this case, it is the masculine.”

According to Belanger, this symbolic association is often combined with a wooden rowboat in his paintings, which becomes “the personification of the male figure.”

“I wanted to come up with something that was a thesis and I think I succeeded,” he says.

Belanger’s thesis has now led him to what he sees a golden opportunity – membership in the well-respected visual arts studio co-operative Enriched Bread Artists.

The non-profit, artist-run space – located within a former bread factory on Gladstone Ave – offers local artists an opportunity to secure affordable studio space, much sought after in space-strapped Ottawa.

Belanger, 41, was unanimously chosen to join the prestigious group last May. He has been an active temporary member since June, exhibiting his paintings at EBA’s well-attended Open House last October.

Although currently sub-letting studio space from a permanent member, Belanger says he is hopeful that by the late spring or early summer, an opening will become available in the building, allowing him to enjoy the benefits of permanent membership.

“The moment I am a permanent member, I am assigned my own studio,” he says, “and that will allow me to focus more fully on my art. I feel very lucky.”

Belanger, a Montreal native, says he finds the artistic atmosphere at EBA challenging and refreshing. He added that he feels his involvement with the group has already helped to facilitate his growth as an artist.

“I used to be alone, working at my studio in my home and, frankly, I was missing that contact,” Belanger says. “It’s good to be part of a community [of artists] where you feel a level of exchange – EBA is fun, it’s encouraging and it’s dynamic.”

Belanger is using his new surroundings and community to move on artistically. Although he has enjoyed his four-year exploration of the pear and the rowboat, he feels he is ready to move on in a new direction.

The painter and sculptor has already begun a lighter-themed transitional project – the exploration of male sexuality through a study of pants.

“As a gay man, I’m showing an aspect of our culture: we like to look at crotches, we like to look at butts and we like to look at six-pack abs,” Belanger says of his current work.

He added that he hopes to exhibit his pant paintings once the study is completed.

Belanger, however, will soon turn his artistic intentions to his next major project, which he says will mix painting and sculpture.

“With this project, I am more interested in the process of the work,” he says. “Of course, I’m also interested in the subject, but I’m most interested in the process.”

Belanger added that he has had the idea for the project for more than six years, but was unable to fully realize his artistic vision, due to “a lack of space, time and material.”

But his EBA membership will soon afford him the space, time and atmosphere to blossom – both as a queer artist and as an individual.

“As an artist, I’m interested in knowing myself,” he says. “And if that’s through exploring being a gay man – then let’s do it.”